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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.10.2013

Digging through my enormous backlog of short story links –

“Troublesolving,” by Tim Pratt (2009): Read the story at Subterranean Online. 

and

“Little Gods,” by Tim Pratt (2002): Read the story at Strange Horizons.

Tim Pratt writes very likable prose; the protagonists in both of these stories narrate with easy, musing movement of thought. “Troublesolving” is a light thriller about a divorcé who encounters a mysterious woman who promises to “fix broken things” for him, just as his recent spate of troubles, from lapsed insurance to a thoroughly vandalized apartment, begins to go really batty. The story doesn’t give the impression of straining itself to be either amusing or startling, and so succeeds at both very well. Its amiably glum protagonist moves through a few science-fictional twists that are fun in an expected kind of way – it’s the incidental observations about ergonomic chairs and pink handguns that really sell the humor, the characters, and their puzzling circumstances.

The Nebula-nominated “Little Gods,” a meditation on grief, ran twee for my tastes, but Pratt’s quietness of tone moderates the sugar to a certain extent, and there are a number of nicely concretely imagined moments:

“I hurl the chunk of rock at the woman on the ceiling. It hits her in the stomach and bounces off, landing on the coffee table with a crack. She squawks like a blackbird. Her skirts draw in quickly like windowshades snapping shut, and then she’s gone, nothing on my ceiling but abandoned spiderwebs.”

Go to:

Tim Pratt: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.26.2013
Read online at Subterranean Press, Winter 2010 edition.

“The Bohemian Astrobleme” (2010) is another droll, diverting spy romp in Baker’s Company universe, the second to feature the spyin’, whorin’, but mostly shruggin’-at-the-foibles-of-men Women of Nell Gwynne’s. (After Baker’s death in 2010, her sister, Kathleen Bartholomew, finished her final novel of the Women, On Land and at Sea, which was just released this past December.)

This time, Lady Beatrice is dispatched to serve in a transcontinental operation regarding the acquisition of the titular mineral, of great scientific interest to the Company’s efforts, which are described as follows:

“The Society’s goal was the improvement of the human condition through the secret use of technologia, until such time as humanity became advanced enough to be made aware of its benefits. It was generally agreed that some sort of world domination would be necessary before that day arrived, but at the present time the Society was content merely to gather power and pull strings attached to certain government officials.”

The story is elegant, economical, briskly paced, and, as above, full of deadpan humor perfect in its quiet delivery. My only disappointment is that the depiction of Lady Beatrice doesn’t progress beyond that initially introduced in “The Women…” (cool, self-contained, effortlessly competent), since she’s a character begging for further development. A static sketch of a hypercompetent cipher is rarely fulfilling, no matter how entertaining. Inevitably, I’ll have to make it my business to pick up the novel.

Go to:
Kage Baker: bio and works reviewed
The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, by Kage Baker (2009): review by Emera
Read “The Bohemian Astrobleme” online

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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: Various dates between November 2010 and spring 2011
Books from: Personal collection, or borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewed here be:

Chew, Volume 1: Taster’s Choice (2009)
Chew, Volume 2: International Flavor (2010)
Chew, Volume 3: Just Desserts (2010)

Chew is the story of Tony Chu, a humorless detective who has the unfortunate ability to gain psychic impressions from anything he eats (except beets). Recruited by the FDA – now the world’s most powerful law enforcement agency in the wake of an avian flu pandemic that took hundreds of millions of lives – for his singular talent, Tony finds himself taking bites of stranger and stranger substances as his casework, increasingly muddied by connections to shadowy criminal organizations and possibly extraterrestrial conspiracies, takes him from New York chicken speakeasies to Siberian research stations staffed by vampire ladies in ushankas to tropical dictator states. Add in a generously embarrassing family, an exhaustingly cheerful cyborg partner, and a hate-filled boss, and life just won’t let up on this by-the-rules cop.

Man, this series. I had no idea what I was in for when Kakaner eagerly gifted me the first two volumes, but it proved to be a delicious combination of hyperkinetic art and zany-bordering-on-surreal world-building. Layman and Guillory are an inimitably weird team: to match Layman’s tireless inventiveness (one of the best parts of reading is trying to predict what absurd food-related superpower will next come into play), Guillory’s art is full of odd angles and wildly energetic gestures and the most! excellent! facial expressions, thanks to his characters’ crinkly, mobile features. His backgrounds, too, are stuffed to bursting with silly details (inexplicable graffiti, stray notes and photographs, etc. etc.), and as is only appropriate for an obsessively food-themed series, the distinctive color palette always reminds me of citrus popsicles:

(Even when Tony is getting a barf facial, apparently.)

The plot is obviously going somewhere, but frankly I’ve been so distracted and entertained and perplexed by the moment-to-moment madness of each volume that I haven’t been working all that hard to piece the bits together – though the gathering momentum was obvious by the end of volume 3, and left me hoping for some interesting developments IN SPACE.

I also have to single out Chew‘s creators for the fact that even though they make merry with pulp/genre stereotypes (well hello, melon-breasted Asian lady assassin, nice to roll my eyes at you again) and just-plain stereotypes (the female assassin is exaggerated to clearly satirical proportions; I’m far less comfortable with the fact that the only recurring black character in the series is, straighforwardly, a cowardly criminal), having gone for the Chew/Chu pun, Layman and Guillory obviously committed thereafter to representation of a varied cast of Asian characters. In other words, they didn’t let Tony’s ethnicity stay a one-off joke and then pat themselves on the back for being inclusive by way of one nonwhite protagonist. Which, frankly, I think plenty of other writers, especially in comics, would have done.

I give them heaping points, of course, for having a cool, competent male Asian protagonist in the first place; discounting of Asian men in pop culture as comical, emasculated etc. (if they’re not ninja/samurai) is a major pet peeve of mine. (I did a count once of the number of female Asian superheroes [ooo, so exotic!!] vs. male once, and the ratio was pretty dismal.) But from there, numerous members of Tony’s family, immediate and extended, have also gotten plenty of pagetime, including his cheerfully self-aggrandizing chef brother and adorable, NASA-employee twin sister.

Though character development takes second seat to conceptual and narrative whimsy in Chew, most of the characters are amply buoyed by the series’ manic energy and humor. It’s refreshing and gratifying to see a broad cast of Asian characters getting the same treatment, and adds immeasurably to my enjoyment of a series that already leaves me grinning at every turn.

Go to:

John Layman: bio and works reviewed 

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.30.2012
Book from: Personal collection

The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 2: DallasThe Umbrella Academy: Dallas begins and ends with presidential assassinations; in between, a whirlpool of crises sucks in the already battered members of the Umbrella Academy superhero “family,” and spits them out again even more embittered and doubtful of their humanity. In between, there’s extensive time travel, nuclear annihilation, a brief interlude in heaven, a man with a goldfish for a head, and page after page of Gerard Way’s incredibly sharp, incredibly funny, incredibly on storytelling and dialogue. (I found myself wanting to deliver affirmations like, “Why yes, Gerard Way, a pair of Girl-Scout-cookie-obsessed hitmen WOULD sound exactly like that!!”)

The presiding metaphor of this volume is of the jungle, and jungle beasts. (“I am in the jungle and I am too fast for you. You have teeth and stripes and things that tear. But I am much too fast… […] Only I know where the jungle is… only I know…” goes Number Five’s crazed self-paean as he single-handedly destroys an army of time-traveling enforcers. It’s both hilarious and chilling, in combination with Bá’s increasingly saucer-eyed rendition of Five and Dave Stewart’s lurid colors for the scene.)

Umbrella Academy works off of the psychological model for superheroes that’s prevailed since Watchmen: they’re average human beings – willful, petty, self-absorbed – acting out their neuroses and capacity for brutality, both emotional and physical, on superhuman scales. Kraken is the series’ Rorschach, obsessed on a primal level with vigilanteism. Spaceboy began as (to jump comic universes) the moody, nobly pathetic X-Man, ashamed of his physical monstrosity (his head was grafted to a Martian gorilla’s body in a lifesaving operation at some point in the past), but by the beginning of this arc has gone over to Nite Owl – overweight, impotent, haunted by crumbling ideals of heroism.

Spaceboy is an obvious visual manifestation of the jungle-beast metaphor: the superhero who’s at least as much monster as man, a Frankensteinian creation as cognitively dissonant and surreally comical as the intelligence-augmented chimps that now constitute a significant proportion of the world of the Umbrella Academy. The chimps were also experimental creations of the Academy’s founder, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, of course. The brief glimpses we get of frigid, controlling Hargreeves are some of the most disturbing moments of the series; it’s a wonder that the Umbrella kids, his grandest experiment, didn’t turn out even more dysfunctional.

In the end, disaster is averted and the world is saved, but at the cost of the life of a good man, and further erosion of the tenuous bonds among the Umbrella Academy. I was pretty heartbroken by the end of the volume, especially after the emotionally devastating bonus story, “Anywhere But Here,” which reveals a pivotal moment from Vanya’s past. Way and Bá have taken their superheroes to such depths of despondency that it’s hard to imagine where they’ll go from here, but I trust that they’ll continue to unfold their heroes’ fates with style, wit, and humanity.

Go to:
Gerard Way: bio and works reviewed
The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 1: Apocalypse Suite (2008): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Dates read: The very end of December 2011
Read from: Vampire Stories by Women, ed. by Stephen Jones (2001).

“Venus Rising on Water” (1991), by Tanith Lee:

“Like long hair, the weeds grew down the façades of the city, over shutters and leaden doors, into the pale green silk of the lagoon. Ten hundred ancient mansions crumbled. Sometimes a flight of birds was exhaled from their crowded mass, or a thread of smoke was drawn up into the sky. Day long a mist bloomed on the water, out of which distant towers rose like snakes of deadly gold. Once in every month a boat passed, carving the lagoon that had seemed thickened beyond movement. Far less often, here and there, a shutter cracked open and the weed hair broke, a stream of plaster fell like a blue ray. Then, some faint face peered out, probably eclipsed by a mask. It was a place of veils. Visitors were occasional…”

Tanith Lee, you’re my favorite. Lee frames this story as a “clash between the future and the past” – I read it as something approaching cosmic horror, although here the cosmic is actually subsumed by more domestic monsters. Either way, Lee writes a humanity under threat.

A plucky girl reporter with the wonderfully foolishly exuberant name of Jonquil Hare goes exploring in a decaying future Venice, haunted by white rats, holograms of inhabitants past, and an ancient astronomer’s painting of a blue-skinned woman. (Lunar/aquatic blue-green, blue-yellow is the story’s sickly, unearthly color theme.) This not being the comfortingly rational universe of Tintin or Holmes, the irrational and unearthly win out, resoundingly declaring both their supremacy over and indifference to humanity. Jonquil is left in a destabilized reality. Sexual unease and gender ambiguity amplify the sense of murkiness, clammy fever dreams.

 —–

Another excellent name: Gala Blau’s 2001 “Outfangthief” takes its title from a Middle English term meaning “the right of a lord to pursue a thief outside the lord’s own jurisdiction.” This is the first splatterpunk – horror driven by extremity of violence, physical violence as emotional climax – I’ve read in a long while, and the effect does seem dated to me now. The villain’s cartoonish perversion takes away from the tragedy of the protagonist: a mother on the run from debts, who sees her teenage daughter drifting, and eventually, taken away from her.

Still, I was taken with Blau’s smoky, dire prose (“…Laura’s hand was splayed against the window, spreading mist from the star her fingers made. She was watching the obliteration of her view intently”) and Gothily surreal vampires (“The women were hunched on the back fence, regarding her with owlish eyes. They didn’t speak. Maybe they couldn’t”). I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of her work.

—-

I saved Caitlín Kiernan‘s “So Runs the World Away” (2001) for nearly last because, as with Lee, I admire and enjoy just about every one of her works. “So Runs…” introduces us to Dead Girl and Bobby, whom I first met (achronologically) in the collection Alabaster. As in “Les Fleurs Empoisonnées” in that collection, cruel, eccentric, clannish undead who dabble in taxidermy make an appearance; the emotional center is the kernel of less-dysfunctional family formed by Dead Girl and Bobby, and Dead Girl’s subaqueous stream-of-consciousness as she fumbles to distinguish her memories from those of her victims.

“And at the muddy bottom of the Seekonk River, in the lee of the Henderson Bridge, Dead Girl’s eyelids flutter as she stirs uneasily, frightening fish, fighting sleep and her dreams. But the night is still hours away, waiting on the far side of the scalding day, and so she holds Bobby tighter and he sighs and makes a small, lost sound that the river snatches and drags away towards the sea.”

The story ultimately hinges on Dead Girl’s choice to separate herself, and her chosen family: to cut them loose from paralyzing and toxic influences. Ultimately, she declares herself distinct, individual (though not solitary), and therefore valuable. Like many of Kiernan’s stories, then, “So Runs…” can be read as being about the negotiation of an abusive relationship.

– E

Go to:

Tanith Lee: bio and works reviewed
Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: April 2011
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

This is a mostly-rant entry.

From the Magazine of F & SF, April 1987:

  • “Olida,” Bob Leman: Lovecraftian romp with undercurrents of class conflict. A representative of the local (Southern?) gentry faces off against ancient, sluggish Evil in the ancestral home of an unsavory backwoods clan. Both surprisingly creepy and surprisingly funny; the closing note of horror is amusingly prim.
  • “The Thunderer,” Alan Dean Foster: Variation #1098018 on “sneering (or wide-eyed and lib’rul, but still condescending) white people with guns and SCIENCE encounter terrifying supernatural force while venturing into uncharted territory” – in this case the Louisiana bayou – “against the advice of superstitious Native Folk.” Yawn. Useless except as an introduction to the eponymous folkoric figure, which I hadn’t heard of before. There’s probably a TVtrope for this kind of thing, but I’m too lazy to go digging for an exact match.
  • “Agents,” Paul di Filippo: If this is at all representative of di Filippo’s work I can’t say I’m much interested in following up. Characters are hastily erected scaffolds on which he hangs his wannabe-cyber-thriller plot; I found his depiction of a disabled character particularly odious. The speculative elements are consequently the only ones of interest: di Filippo posits an Internet only navigable by means of expensive virtual “agents;” this limit on access to information and computing erects an almost insurmountable barrier between rich and poor, which works well enough nowadays as an allegory for the social effects of il/literacy and access to resources, technological or otherwise. And then a hacked agent is accidentally set loose and ohnoes rogue AI on the run and the story ends with an ellipsis…!

Go to:
BBCF: MF&SF, June 1983
Time Warp 1987: F&SF and a couple of soggy old men

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Date read: 6.11.11
Read from: Subterranean Press Magazine
Reviewer: Emera

Assorted thoughts on K. J. Bishop’s “The Heart of a Mouse,” which recently won the Aurealis Award for Best SF Short Story. All the other reviews I’ve linked below offer good summaries of the story, if you’d like more situational context.

First thought: This isn’t (just) post-apocalyptic, it’s a dystopia. The government just happens to be invisible, unless maybe one considers an amoral universe – strange, brutal, incomprehensible from the individual perspective – to be a “governing body”… But there’s an inflexible class system/food chain:

“Deros and trogs and dogs live in towns, cats roam. Dogs and cats hunt everything except angels and bactyls. Volk hunt big game, raid towns and hold rallies. Pigs eat anything dead except angels, and bactyls eat anything dead and anything alive that doesn’t move fast enough to get away. Dreams hunt everything, eat anything. Angels don’t eat, but they kill, which comes to the same thing for you and me. And that’s all. It isn’t so much to keep in your head.”

and the economy likewise boasts all the flexibility and diversity of the shop system in a low-budget first-person shooter (more on this later). (Also, irony alert re: the role of the “dreams” in the food web.) The system – “mom and pop” shops, pig farms that provide wages and canned pork – keeps running stably enough to keep alive the inhabitants who don’t get themselves eaten by something else, and we’re given no reason to believe it won’t keep working that way. The end of the story sees one of the last few wrinkles in the system being ironed out, in a brief, carefully affectless paragraph of description that I found one of the most moving in the story. Against the backdrop of mouse-dad’s macho sentimentality, it’s the mostly uncommentated incidents that stand out, cleanly foregrounding the story’s surreal horror/beauty. The last image in the story is unforgettable, especially since I’m always a sucker for the kind of monstrousness embodied in Bishop’s many-faced, many-eyed angels and dreams. What is it about nephilim, seraphim, the angels in Neon Genesis Evangelion, that is so uniquely sublime and unnerving?

Second thought: This is what life would be like in a video game, but one without even the comfort of an objective, let alone a glowing textbox at the end to tell you you can progress to the next stage. Just enough rules exist to make it clear how terrifyingly arbitrary it is that any rules exist at all – who’s setting and enforcing them? Weapons and supplies and what amount to NPCs “punch in” at apparently predetermined intervals, and again there’s that disturbingly cartoonish food chain, that reads much like a game manual’s bestiary…

Read the rest of this entry »

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Date read: 3.17.11
Book from: Library
Reviewer: Emera

book umbrella

From the back cover:

In an inexplicable worldwide event, forty-seven extraordinary children were spontaneously born by women who had previously shown no signs of pregnancy. Millionaire inventor Reginald Hargreeves adopted seven of the children; when asked why, his only explanation was, ‘To save the world.’ These seven children form The Umbrella Academy, a dysfunctional family of superheroes with bizarre powers. Their first adventure at the age of ten pits them against an erratic and deadly Eiffel Tower… Nearly a decade later, the team disbands, but when Hargreeves unexpectedly dies, these disgruntled siblings reunite just in time to save the world once again.”

The Umbrella Academy is clearly an enormous excuse for Gerard Way to make moody, tentacular love to all the tropes of the superhero comic. Father-figure issues, intra-team rivalries and romantic tensions PLUS frolicsomely deranged villains and a tortured, vengeful supervillainess PLUS nonstop, glibly surreal* storytelling = one gloriously dark, weird, and addictive series. I can’t speak to there being much real substance under the surface – other than Way’s manifest passion for superheroes and their particular brand of wounded humanity – but it’s a terribly stylish and entertaining comic, with occasional moments of real sweetness and charm.

Art highlights: Dave Stewart’s yummy colors – heavy on dark, desaturated oranges and purples. And I love the weight of Gabriel Ba’s figures, and their elastic, elongated torsos – makes for interesting stances and gestures. Also, I could stare at the cover forever. Hi, Vanya. What shapely F-holes you have.

(I know. I’m sorry.)

I devoured the first volume in one sitting, and am jonesing to get my hands on the second. Also, this may well be my favorite single line of comic-book dialogue: “And just as I suspected – ZOMBIE-ROBOT GUSTAVE EIFFEL!”

* The kids’ surrogate mother is an animate anatomical model. What’s not to love?

Go to:
Gerard Way: bio and works reviewed
The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 2, by Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá (2009): review by Emera

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I picked up a few old copies of Fantasy & Science Fiction for free this past fall, and should be posting a couple of reviews from them at intervals. Reading this issue, April 1987, meant a number of firsts for me – namely, my first time actually reading F&SF, my first time reading any non-electronic pro genre magazine, and my first time reading several big-name authors (…pretty much everyone in this issue, really). Embarrassing.

Also, check out this most excellent cover (an illustration for Wayne Wightman’s “Cage 37,” and, since Kakaner asked, honorary BBCF):

Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1987Aww yeah. Alienated youth clad in flabby sweats squint at you from the thick of the ’80’s.

Anyway, reviews! Two to start.

—–

Stephen Sondheim once dismissed his lyrical work for West Side Story as being “wet,” which has stuck with me as being a useful descriptor for the kind of self-seriousness generally accompanied by moistened eyes being cast to the horizon. (I love WSS anyway, by the way.) Lucius Shepard‘s prose in “The Glassblower’s Dragon” struck me as being very, very wet. Blah blah blah disaffected artist and club girl find Moment of Solace in each other’s company. Cue an outpouring of faintly patronizing affection on the part of the artist, a general pity party, and some really soppy declamations:

“And loss was probable, for love is an illusion with the fragility of glass and light, whose magic must constantly be renewed. But for the moment they did not allow themselves to think of these things. They were content to stare after the dragon, after the sole truth in their lives that no lie could disparage.”

Buh.

—–

George Zebrowski‘s “Behind the Night” dwells on “a sterile, post-plague United States and a 119-year-old president who is implementing a foreign policy based on treason” (stealing F&SF’s blurb there). It goes for elegiac, but doesn’t really get beyond fervent, slightly incoherent sentimentality, e.g.

“The sonata of survival is unaffected by our views of it; we have yet to learn how to change more than a few notes without creating dissonances. Life requires the deterioration of the body, the dashing of hopes, the death of love, to produce a head full of fading thoughts.”

and

“‘A beautiful idea,’ I said, moved by the depth of her feelings. And I realized that in a sense I had become the father of a new country.”

Oh Mr. President, what a clever duck you are.

Also, this one had yet more bubblings-up of creepish paternalistic tenderness. Brrr.

– E

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Date Read: 08.28.10
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

A massive 50 km-long metal cylinder (later named Rama) is hurtling towards earth at an awesome speed. The discovery stirs the world into motion, culminating in the launch of a select few for an exploration mission. The chosen members immediately leave Earth to begin their assignment, finding their way into the cylinder with relative ease and explore the object, trying to understand it’s function and characteristics…

Review

…and as far as the summary is concerned, that’s about it! It’s Clarke, and although I’m no expert– having only read Childhood’s End before– I get the sense that he dives into telling a story by making a beeline for a particular concept or vision but really doesn’t take the time to look elsewhere. There was a solid, but rather pat, exposition (granted it was the 22nd century, but is it *really* that easy to pull together a space exploration team with so little international bickering??) followed by the introduction of a few uninteresting members of the team, and then it was onward with the science! This was pretty hard sci-fi, especially for 1972– if you’re looking for intergalactic cross-species love affairs and all the politics of a space epic, this is not the book for you. It read like a very self-indulgent exploration of a fantasy world/sci-fi concept that Clarke was just dying to bring to life.

So yes, the novel’s sole focus was the exploration, description, and documentation of Rama. And Rama was beautiful. I’d first compare my reading experience to that of watching 2001: A Space Odyssey— serene, epic, silent, intensely futuristic, a sense of overwhelming vastness, and very reminiscent of Journey to the Center of the Earth with respect to the concept of an enclosed yet self-sufficient world. What strikes you as you wander through Rama is the almost sinister quiet of the place, and how it instills within you this fear that each new discovery is going to be the unveiling of some awesome Truth, or at least some mighty power that would set you at ease with simply knowing. Every part of the world was full of implication (Why were there houses with no doors, and objects frozen inside? Why were there fearsomely fast and lethal robots that roamed like animals? Why was there a synthetically generated electric thunderstorm? Why was there a world in this cylinder in the first place?) and scientific content that I was so mentally tired every couple of pages… I literally had to stop and take breaks to gather my thoughts and to work on visualizing a new part of Rama. The foreignness of it all was terribly uncomfortable yet incredibly exciting.

I could go into more detail about Rama, such as giving dimensions, painting a map, or describing each location, but Rendezvous with Rama was more of a powerful visionary experience for me (and that’s what Wikipedia is for!) This book was an immediate winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards upon it’s publication, and rightly so.

Go To:

Arthur C. Clarke: bio and works reviewed

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